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Virginia women’s basketball falls 60-34 to Central Florida in season opener

Despite an opening lead, the Cavaliers were unable to hold on against the defensively strong Knights

<p>Freshman guard Kaydan Lawson scored seven points and recorded five rebounds in her debut.</p>

Freshman guard Kaydan Lawson scored seven points and recorded five rebounds in her debut.

The 2020-21 women’s basketball season kicked off in lackluster fashion for Virginia, as the team fell to the defensively talented Central Florida 60-34 Wednesday night away in Orlando, Fla. The Cavaliers (0-1, 0-0 ACC) started the game with high energy and an early lead, but ultimately could not keep up with the Knights (1-0, 0-0 ACC). 

Virginia entered the match young and inexperienced, with four of the five starters in only their sophomore year. The starting lineup included graduate student forward Tihana Stojsavljevic and sophomore forward Meg Jefferson, who were given the nod for their first collegiate starts. In addition to inexperience, Virginia also lacked depth in their bench — only nine Cavaliers traveled and were available for the match.

Virginia got off to a hot start against Central Florida, scoring the first nine points and establishing an early 13-1 lead by the 3:27 mark in the first quarter. Stojsavljevic initiated the Cavaliers’ offense by netting the first two field goals. Despite the promising start, the Knights responded quickly — mainly thanks to sophomore guard Alisha Lewis and junior guard Diamond Battles, who scored seven and 12 points, respectively, in the second quarter. Central Florida went 10-of-17 from the floor to build a 33-23 lead going into the half.

“I honestly think as a team we started so strong,” Jefferson said. “We sort of blew it out of the water, honestly. Of course, they’re a tough team so they came back, and it was hard to fight.”

The second half did not fare well for the Cavaliers, scoring only 11 points over the two quarters. In the third quarter, Virginia began by matching Central Florida for each basket scored, maintaining the 10-point difference. The score was 27-37 with 6:25 remaining when the Knights offense took off. 

Central Florida finished the third quarter on an eight-point scoring streak with four different players contributing points. The Knights continued the scoring stretch in the fourth quarter, adding 13 points and extending their lead to 27-58. With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jefferson finally made a layup after over 14 scoreless minutes for Virginia.

The Cavaliers scored just 11 points total in the second half, seven of which came during the final two minutes of the game. Despite the large point discrepancy between the teams and the clarity that Virginia would not finish with a win, the Cavaliers worked hard until the final seconds and fought for every point.

Highlights of the Virginia squad included Jefferson, who scored a team-leading eight points and also recorded three rebounds and one assist, and freshman guard Kaydan Lawson, who scored seven points and rebounded five in her collegiate debut. Also of note was freshman forward Deja Bristol, who led the Cavaliers with nine rebounds.

Looking ahead, Virginia hopes to improve every area of its offense. While the Knights boast a solid defense, the Cavaliers’ offense sputtered to just 34 points — the first time Virginia has scored less than 40 points since the 2018-19 season. 

The Cavaliers struggled to create shooting opportunities and the team’s turnovers didn’t help in that regard — Virginia produced 30 turnovers over the course of the game, which gave Central Florida converted into 28 points. Virginia went only 14-for-47 from the field — making just 29 percent of its attempts. The Cavaliers went 0-for-9 from the three-point line, an area that clearly needs improvement.  

Comparatively, Central Florida went 24-for-52 from the field and netted four-of-seven three-point attempts as well as eight of its 11 free throws. 

“I think we just need to work on our patience,” Bristol said. “Everything is there — we just need to be patient and diligent and just work on actually executing our offenses because the options are there.”

With such a young roster, it’s expected that patience and confidence will take time to build. On a positive note, the Cavaliers’ non-conference game against the Knights highlighted areas for growth that Coach Tina Thompson can address before ACC play begins.

“Definitely excited about getting the first game under our belt to begin the season — the outcome, not so much,” Thompson said. “We've got a lot of work to do, and we'll come back …  and get back after it.”

Virginia will play its home opener Sunday, hosting East Carolina at John Paul Jones Arena. Tip off is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the match will be broadcast on ACC Network.